Weird Norfolk: The witch whose boiled eggs led to 13 men losing their lives at sea

PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 April 2019 | UPDATED: 11:41 20 April 2019

Did Mother Gabley start a storm with eggs? Picture: Wellcome Collection

Did Mother Gabley start a storm with eggs? Picture: Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection

A special tale for Easter: the storm-raising witch from King’s Lynn said to have used eggs to drown sailors

Many of us have heard of a superstition which involves smashing eggshells to prevent witches using them as boats to cause havoc on the sea.

The custom began in the 1500s and grew from a belief that witches would snatch up unbroken eggshells, cast them adrift at the shoreline and use them as a vessel from which to cause devastating storms and the sinking of ships.

As late as the 1840s, Irish settlers in America insisted on smashing eggshells to ensure the fairies who had travelled with them to the land of the free couldn't escape back home to the Emerald Isle.

In Eggshells by Elizabeth Fleming, a poem written in 1934, the author writes: “Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup; Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up, For witches come and find them and sail away to sea, And make a lot of misery for mariners like me...

“They call up all the tempests from Davy Jones's store, And blow us into waters where we haven't been before; And when the masts are falling in splinters on the wrecks, The witches climb the rigging and dance upon the decks...”

But in King's Lynn, it was the eggs and not their shells that were said to have been used in witchcraft to cause the death of sailors who drowned west of Wells-next-the-Sea's harbour.

Mother Gabley was the first person condemned in Norfolk under the 1563 Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts which was passed early in the reign of Elizabeth I and was, to all intents and purposes, slightly more merciful towards those who were found guilty of witchcraft than previous laws.

For the first time, lesser crimes could be punishable by imprisonment, but the death sentence still cast its shadow over those who were convicted of more serious offences.

Mother Gabley was accused of causing the death of Robert Archer, Oliver Cobb, William Barret, Henry Gouldsmith, Richard Dye and others who had sailed from Spain to England. In all, 13 men had died.

She had, it was claimed, boiled eggs in cold water, stirring vigorously to raise a storm at sea.

The Wells parish register notes: “Deaths were brought to pass by the detestable workings of an execrable witch of King's Lynn whose name was Mother Gabley by the boiling, or rather labouring, of certain eggs in a pail full of cold water.”

In Folklore, volume 13, issue four of 1902, a correspondent asks what kind of magic Mother Gabley had been accused of and was told by the editor: “The rite was evidently one of sympathetic magic, raiding a storm at sea by simulating one in a pail.”

Using eggs for magical purposes is a practice which has been recorded for centuries - ovomancy is a form of divination which involves 'reading' omens from the shape of egg white dropped into boiling water and was cited during the Salem witch trials.

By the time Mother Gabley stood accused of causing death by eggs in 1583, it was widely believed that witches could raise storms, tempests, hailstorms and lightning by whipping up spells which mirrored nature.

After a Sabbat, it was thought that witches mounted broomsticks and flew out to sea where they would cause huge storms by depositing the contents of their cauldrons into the water or throwing their hair into the waves.

They would hurl lightning from the air or, if land bound, would raise tempests in a whole manner of ways such as stirring water into holes in the ground, urinating in holes, chanting spells or locking spiders or toads into bottles or pots.

As witch hunts raged, so did the belief that natural disasters or misfortune was caused by witchcraft and many people were put on trial and later executed for 'crimes' such as a violent hailstorm in 15th century Germany which destroyed crops over a mile.

Many were suspected but two women were accused, imprisoned and tortured until they confessed: one was hung by her thumbs and both, battered into submission, were later burnt at the stake.

Mother Gabley was hanged in King's Lynn in 1583, probably at Tuesday Market Place, where other accused witches met their fate and probably for nothing more than cooking eggs for dinner.

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